Debris was just the gold that Matt Smith was looking for a month or so ago. A Tempe sculptor, he's always scavenging for inspiration in rubbish. But pawing through a mound of construction refuse across the tracks from Macayo's Depot Cantina in downtown Tempe, he found a mother lode that he couldn't believe: tile remnants of a public art project that his artist friend Tom Ferguson had created for the planters along Mill Avenue in the 1990s.

"It was really a shame, because the bricks and tiles were all busted up," says Smith. "I thought it was disgusting to see it thrown away like that."

The pieces, which belonged to a popular series of 66 tiles that Ferguson created for the brick planters along a downtown stretch of Mill Avenue in 1994 and 1995, are the latest casualty of Tempe's ongoing efforts to redefine its most urban street.

Chris Wilson, a spokesman for the Downtown Tempe Community (DTC), the private organization that manages Mill Avenue, says that some of the planters need to be eliminated to improve the health of the street's trees, but not all of Ferguson's tiles are headed for the dumpster. About 26 tiles are being removed.

The original plan was to salvage them from the planters slated for demolition and reinstall them as part of a future public art project. But once the construction crews began work, says Wilson, the destruction of the tiles became unavoidable.

"We tried really, really hard," he says. "Anything that could be saved, we tried to save."

The problem, says Jody Ulich, who manages Tempe's cultural services department, which oversees the city's public art projects, is that the tiles weren't installed to be removed easily.

Ferguson apparently was too adept at building his project to last.

"I put them on with a good, strong ceramic adhesive," he says. So last April, when the contractor asked him how to remove them, about all he could do was wish them luck.

"They weren't designed for that," Ferguson says. "They were supposed to be a permanent installation."

But permanence has been an expendable virtue on a street that's constantly being revamped to compete with the boom of malls and stores in the formerly snoozy neighboring towns of Chandler and Gilbert.

Dave Fackler, who now heads Tempe's development services department, understood the potential for change far better than the city's public art administrators did when the work was commissioned nine years ago. The public art crew of the day included language in Ferguson's contract that guaranteed the maintenance and repair of his work. The legalese even assured the artist the opportunity to repair or restore damaged parts of the project.

These protections roughly followed the mandates of the federal Visual Artists Rights Act, which sought to protect the integrity of some works of public art. But in accepting Ferguson's original proposal, Fackler wrote that the city would not promise "any long term . . . commitment to the maintenance, replacement, or continuance of the art work."

Ferguson says he didn't pay much attention to that clause when he first read it. But it now seems to have been a red flag.

The irony of the project's partial demise is that the tiles were among the city's initial efforts to turn Tempe's commercial core into the region's Buzztown -- a vigorous zone that harked back, brickwork and all, to the Main Street life American cities had known before urban commerce and vitality began draining away to suburban malls.

Downtown planners saw the art as one of the ingredients the city needed in order to produce that mysterious thing called "sense of place." To make the place hum, the city cleared Mill Avenue of its curbside parking. It planted trees, added planters and new lighting, and encouraged the development of new businesses and residences.

Ferguson's project, which ultimately cost about $8,200, was one of a handful of artworks installed along the sidewalks on both sides of Mill between University Drive and Third Street. The projects were intended to be small, eye-catching enhancements of the theme of a revitalized historic downtown.

Instead of installing a sculpture or some sort of street furniture, Ferguson decided to embellish the 44 brick planters that were part of the downtown improvements. The scenes on his ceramic tiles played up five thematic slices: the city's pedestrian and commercial life, flora, fauna and history.

He cemented the tiles to the corners of the planters closest to the sidewalk, so walkers could easily pause to view them. Occasionally, the motifs referred to businesses that once operated nearby. One tile with drawings of tools still sits on a planter in front of the building that used to house the Arizona Vehicle and Hardware Company. Other tiles offer pictures of barber shops, cafes and other glimpses of city commerce. A number feature familiar Arizona landscapes, birds and crops, such as cotton and oranges.

The city liked Ferguson's first batch of more than 40 tiles so much that it commissioned a second round of about 30, which were installed in 1995. Though the works were widely embraced, they began their urban life at a disadvantage. Because the planters were already built, the tiles existed as add-ons, so they couldn't be inset.

"If they'd been inset," says Ulich, "I think we could have managed to remove them and save them."

Insetting them also would have protected the tiles from the assault of skateboarders who, over the years, have chipped away at the planters and art with stunts that seemed unimaginable when the tiles were created.

The removal of the tiles coincides with other downtown changes. In the coming months, Mill Avenue will see the return of on-street parking, reducing traffic through the crowded downtown to a one-lane crawl in each direction. Restaurants up and down the street are developing plans to expand outdoor dining areas that will enable them to circumvent the smoking ban approved by voters last year.

"It's just like any other place," says DTC's Wilson. "When your living room gets to be 10 or 12 years old, it's time to repaint and remodel. That's what we're doing."

He says the DTC is talking about recommissioning the artist to update the project once the dust settles. But that talk hasn't reached Ulich or Ferguson.

"I was kind of hoping that, as the things became damaged, they would ask me to replace them," says Ferguson. "I'd be more than willing to do that."

In the meantime, Ferguson's friend Matt Smith has enacted his own plan for at least one of the battered tiles.

"I found this one chunk of brick and tile with some really nice flowers on it," he says. He guesses it weighed close to 70 pounds. But it was too good leave in the heap.

"So I dragged it home and put it in the ground," he says. "It's actually kind of a tombstone for my cat."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow